Dear John is not a well-remembered show. It’s in the genre of “ripped off from British sitcoms” along with American classics such as Sanford and Son, but it’s far less memorable. It’s the story of a middle-aged man whose wife leaves him and the friendships he makes with members of a support group. In one episode, he convinces his music teacher to let him join the teacher’s group that is to play at a recital hall in the same building as the famous part of Carnegie Hall. So he can say he had played at Carnegie Hall. The joke is that the kids are supposed to be third-graders. They are, in fact, students from Eliot Junior High School’s music department. But not me or Valerie Nicol, because we were too tall and recast.
Judd Hirsch was very nice to us. This, I remember, and it’s something I think every time I see him. “Judd Hirsch was nice.” A lot of the characters I’ve seen him play have been nice, too. He has a tendency to play pleasant, somewhat put-upon men. One of his early roles was as William Shatner’s makeup artist in a Columbo episode, and that’s a thankless job. John Lacey was the straight man on his own show, from what little I remember (I really need to dig out and scan that script they gave me), and I’m pretty sure that’s the case on Taxi as well.
I watched him in The Fabelmans and thought, “This is a really brilliant performance that’s going to deservedly lose to Ke Huy Quan.” It’s an amazing performance; one of those roles that’s only onscreen for a couple of scenes but makes you remember it for years. The advice he gives is something less than what Sam Fabelman was hoping for, but it’s also not wrong. It’s not hard to imagine young Stevie Spielberg dealing with the same advice and thinking about how little he wanted it to be true. And casting Judd Hirsch as the perfect person to deliver it.
That it has taken me this long to get around to him—despite, as I said, actually having met him—tells you something about his persona. You just don’t think of him first. He’s ostensibly the main character of Taxi, based on the episodes I’ve seen, and if you think of him first, I’m surprised. Honestly I’d be surprised if he thought of himself first from that show. His whole job was not being as flashy as Christopher Lloyd or Andy Kaufman, after all.
It was a joy to see him appear in Numb3rs. In The Muppets and Warehouse 13. Studio 60, which as established I actually like. He’s great in Ordinary People, even if it’s not much of a surprise that he lost that Oscar to Timothy Hutton. In fact, I’d say the only thing I’ve seen him appear in where I wasn’t happy to see him was Sharknado 2, where I just wanted to take him by the hand and lead him to a better movie.